Are you familiar with the sentiment, “Dance like nobody’s watching?” The idea in this phrase is beautiful, but sounds hard to produce, right? Now pair these beautifully intimate moments with moments of athletic, full bodied movement, set to a loose, dynamic rock score by David Lang, played live onstage by a rocking band, consisting of Taylor Levine, Michael McCurdy, and James Moore. Susan Marshall & Company‘s Play/Pause is the perfect blend of dance that feels good to the dancer and dance that is pleasing to the audience’s eyes, and still has an underlying fire of various themes running beneath it.
Marshall, in collaboration with her ensemble of dynamic, eclectic, and instinctive dancers (Christopher Adams, Ching-I Chang, Kristin Clotfelter, Luke Miller, Peter Simpson, and Darrin M. Wright) marries full bodied, athletic phrases of dance, with human interactions, prop explorations, and gestural sequences of movement (both from popular dance and abstracted movement). One minute, the committed ensemble of dancers performs a phrase on a diagonal in which each dancer is falling off balance, sweeping their legs across and behind their bodies, and running in dynamic circles through the stage space. The next minute, said dancers are performing a gestural sequence of choreography, chock full of idiosyncratic and sharp movements. The diversity in her movement vocabulary is only one reason that Marshall is a masterful choreographer.
The movement exploration looks at a number of dualities: concert dance vs. “feel good” dance, isolation vs. connection, and personal vs. presentational, just to name a few. The choreography presents ideas reminiscent of Beyoncé’, the iconic step touch, and a couple signature gestures from The Supremes, and once the audience has been able to register those movements, Marshall puts her own twist on them and blurs the line between the familiar and the unfamiliar. While large sections of group movement involve the dancers in their own distinct worlds, there are a number of intimate duets and trios that rely on and require the dancers to be quite aware of one another. At times, it seems that the dancers are not aware that they are being watched, as one audience member commented in a post-performance discussion, she felt as though she was barging in on something private. In contrast, other moments rely on the presence of the audience, such as a “sing-along” of deep cleansing breaths between a soloist and the audience.
In various permutations of dancers, Marshall experiments with the sensory experience for the audience. With the use of a wooden flat on wheels, designed by Andreea Minic, the dancers rip strips of tape of differing lengths, and create various patterns of horizontal and vertical strips of the tape on the set piece. Then, a dancer with a live microphone will run the microphone along the tape, and the various swipes will create moments of the soundscape made by the dancers’ movements. Visualizing the creation of the sound in these moments is absolutely breathtaking. In other moments, the set piece is flipped around, and we see a block of lights used as backlighting, so the individual dancer is shadowed and all we can see is the silhouette of the dancer, as if at a rock concert. The appearance of this “rock star” figure echoes that dancer we imagine ourselves as in the moments when nobody is watching. When we let down our guard, blast our favorite song, and have a dance party in our kitchen.
Susan Marshall has created a potent evening of dance, that evolves from one vignette to another. The collaborations that went into this work seem to have helped elevate the questions that Marshall and her dancers were answering through movement. David Lang’s score is the perfect blend of reminiscent, of various rock influences, and abstract. It has a driving force behind it, when the audience needs to feel the influence of music on the movement, and it is ethereal and sparse when the movement needs to speak for itself. The presence of the musicians onstage with the dancers adds an energy and life to the music, a dialogue between the dancers and the musicians if you will.
Eric Southern’s lighting design is truly spectacular. The lighting spans the emotional spectrum from intimate to performative, at times giving you the energy of a rock concert with moving lights and heavy backlighting, and at other times zeroing in on the dancers’ faces through screens on mic stands, or tubes of fluorescent lights. The lighting, much like the music, feels like a living force in this piece, and grows and changes as the mood of each vignette changes.
Andreea Minic’s set design is superb and really creates the world in which this piece of dance exists. The set piece on wheels, one side wood and other side backlighting, is truly a work of art. This piece is crucial in a number of moments and when it’s not being used it blends into the abyss of the stage space. The excess mic cord adds drama to the use of the microphone for soundscape purposes, and the microphone stands being ever present adds ambience.
Diana Broussard’s costume design suits the piece well, in tones of black, grey, and white. Each dancer has an interesting element or two to his or her costume, from subtle green strips of fabric on a pair of leggings, to one sparkly black sock, the individual dancers’ costumes aren’t without their respective quirks.
In the post-performance discussion, Ms. Marshall commented that when she begins a work with her dancers, she starts with a lot of questions. They explore these questions, and while the inspiration stems from this place, that doesn’t mean that they answer all of their questions. This sentiment allowed me to leave some of my questions about the work unanswered, and not feel as though I was missing anything for not having those answers. In not searching for answers and looking for meaning in each and every moment, I am able to treasure the moments that I found arresting and themes and motifs that resonated with me.
If you are looking for an evening of feel good dance in a concert dance setting, set to live music, performed by a savvy ensemble of dancers, crafted by an expert choreographer, Susan Marshall & Company’s Play/Pause is the show for you!!
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
Susan Marshall & Company’s Play/Pause plays through October 31, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.